The Belgian double-header of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne is simply known as the opening weekend. The Flemish pair raises the curtain on more than a month of racing across the cobbles, which comes to its climax with Paris-Roubaix on April 9.
Most of the big Classics stars will be in attendance, despite the warmer weather of Abu Dhabi an option for those who wish for it. The Omloop Het Nieuwsblad victor tends to come from a breakaway, while Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne more often than not sees the sprinters honing their top speed – although it’s not always the case. The early position in the calendar mixed with the often torrid Belgian conditions can make these races unpredictable.
Solid performances can often give a small indication as to who is going to enjoy a good Classics campaign, but peaking too early is also dangerous. Only Tom Boonen in 2009 has managed to turn victory in either of these races into a win at either the Tour of Flanders or Paris-Roubaix in the past decade, after he won Kuurne followed by Paris-Roubaix.
The weather is expected to be typically Belgian with low temperatures and a bit of rain on both days.
Omloop Het Nieuwsblad
For the first time in its history, Omloop Het Nieuwsblad will be part of the WorldTour this season. Unlike the WorldTour races that were on the 2016 calendar, the 18 WorldTour teams are not obligated to ride the race. Despite this, only three teams have opted out; Dimension Data, UAE Abu Dhabi-Emirates and Movistar.
Defending champion Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing) will be back to begin his tilt at the Tour of Flanders, while outgoing Classics legend Boonen (Quick-Step Floors) starts the final Classics campaign of his career. Boonen has had an up and down start to the season with a crash at the Tour of Oman, but his stage win at the Vuelta a San Juan shows that he already has some good form. Although his opportunity is likely to come on the Sunday rather than the Saturday.
Van Avermaet may have had a difficult off-season after breaking his ankle, but he too has shown signs of form in Valencia and at the Tour of Oman. Although, he’s unlikely to be as strong in Omloop Het Nieuwsblad as he was in previous years. For Belgium, Van Avermaet and Boonen will be the two leading lights, but there is plenty more talent on show, including other former winners Philippe Gilbert (Quick-Step Floors), Sep Vanmarcke (Cannondale-Drapac), Sebastian Langeveld (Cannondale-Drapac) and Ian Stannard (Team Sky).
The race begins in the heart of Gent at the Citadel Park and heads south to take in some of the climbs that will feature in the Tour of Flanders at the start of April. Haaghoek introduces the riders to the cobbles for the first time. The Leberg climb comes up after just 54 kilometres, followed by Berendries a few short kilometres later. Tenbosse and Eikenmolen have been added into the route this year, before a trip up the Muur Van Geraardsbergen and then the Valkenberg, closing out the first section of the course.
The riders will hit Haaghoek again just after the halfway point, before the second loop down towards Ronse and back up to Oudenaarde. This section features four cobbled sectors and five climbs, including the Taaienberg and the Eikenberg. Passing through Haaghoek for the third and final climb, the race heads back towards Gent, taking in two final climbs and four more cobbled sectors, three of which come in the 30 kilometres between the final ascent of the Molenberg and the finish line.
The pack heads 50 kilometres south-west to Kuurne to pick up the Classics action on Sunday. While sprinters have dominated Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, with Mark Cavendish and Boonen among the previous winners, a well-timed breakaway could just as easily succeed. Jasper Stuyven (Trek-Segafredo) jumped the gun with 17 kilometres to go and, while the pack came close to catching him, he held on to take victory by 17 seconds.
Stuyven is back and will be wearing the number one on his back. His new Classics teammate John Degenkolb will be resting up ahead of Paris-Nice next month, so Stuyven will have free reign at the race. There will be no Cavendish, who is warming his tyres in Abu Dhabi, but Boonen comes in as the only other former winner in attendance.
Alexander Kristoff (Katusha-Alpecin) has come close to victory in Kuurne on a couple of occasions, and he has been going well so far this season, but his new teammate Tony Martin has the skillset to deliver his team the win just as well. Double world champion and last year’s Tour of Flanders winner Peter Sagan (Broa-Hansgrohe) has not raced since his season debut at the Tour Down Under and may not be firing on all cylinders, but riders would be remiss to discount him here or at Omloop Net Nieuwsblad.
These are just a few of the potential frontrunners, but riders such as Zdenek Stybar (Quick-Step Floors), Jens Keukeleire, Jean-Pierre Drucker (BMC Racing), Lars Boom (LottoNL-Jumbo) or Sonny Colbrelli (Bahrain-Merida) could all put their hat in the ring.
From Kuurne, the race route takes on an eastern course, passing through Harelbeke and below Oudenaarde. Only one climb features in the opening stretch towards Brussels – which the race doesn’t actually go into. Upon turning back west, just after Voorde, the riders face 11 more climbs, including La Houppe, Kruisberg and Oude Kwaremont. The final hellingen of the day is the Tiegemberg with more than 60 kilometres remaining.
It is for this reason, and the two local laps at the end, that a breakaway is harder to work, but with some calculation and determination, it is possible to shake off the shackles of the peloton.